Opinion Polls: Death Penalty Support and Religious Views

Pew Research Center: Atheists and Agnostics Tend to Support Death Penalty Less Than Other Religious Groups

According to a Pew Research Center survey from April 2021, a majority of adults in the United States support the use of the death penalty for individuals convicted of murder, but these views tend to vary by religion. Approximately two-thirds of atheists and six-in-ten agnostics are at least ‘somewhat’ opposed to the use of capital punishment for those convicted of murder, while 60% of U.S. adults favors the death penalty. For particular religious groups, this support is even higher: roughly 75% of white Evangelicals and Protestants favor capital punishment, as well as 61% of Hispanic Catholics. For Black Protestants, capital punishment is a divisive issue, with 50% supporting its use and 47% opposing its use. This division reflects the overall lower support for the death penalty among Black Americans, regardless of religiosity. 

The survey also addresses moral qualms about the use of the death penalty, whether capital punishment has a deterrent effect, whether sentencing for the same crime varies by race, and whether there are adequate protections to prevent against the execution of an innocent person. Amongst this set of answers, approximately half of the atheists and agnostics believe the death penalty is morally unjustifiable, while less than a quarter of the white Protestants and evangelicals shared the same sentiment. According to Sarah Kramer, “generally speaking, people with any religious affiliation are more likely than those without one to say that the threat of the death penalty deters serious crime.” The survey revealed a large difference in whether each group thinks the death penalty is applied equally by race. Nearly 90% of Black Protestants believe that Black people are more likely than White people to be sentenced to death for crimes with similar circumstances, while almost 70% of white evangelicals believe the death penalty is equally applied to white and Black people. This number was lesser among white non-evangelicals (53%) and Catholics (47%). Every religious group that participated in the survey agreed, with large majorities, that there is some risk associated with an innocent person being put to death in the United States.

S. Kramer, Unlike other U.S. religious groups, most atheists and agnostics oppose the death penalty (June 15, 2021)

2014 Public Religion Research Institute Poll Finds That Most Religious Affiliations in the United States Prefer Life in Prison Without Parole to the Death Penalty

The September 2014 “American Values Survey” by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRPI) showed that 48% of Americans said they preferred life without parole as the punishment for murder, as compared to 44% who said they preferred the death penalty. The poll found what PRPI commentators described as “significant religious divides on this issue.” Support for the death penalty was lowest among Hispanic and Black Protestants, at 24% and 25%, respectively. 68% of each preferred life without parole. Catholics, Jews, other non-Christian religions, and the religiously unaffiliated all preferred life without parole to the death penalty. Only White evangelical (59 percent) and White mainline Protestants (52 percent) expressed majority support for the death penalty, with 34% and 40% from these groups, respectively, preferring life without parole.

(J. Piacenza, Support for Death Penalty by Religious Affiliation (Apr. 9, 2015))

Gallup Poll: Who Supports the Death Penalty? 

The combined aggregate results from the nine surveys conducted from 2001 through 2004 show some interesting, albeit subtle, differences in death penalty support by religious affiliation.

Church Attendance

Americans who attend religious services on a regular basis are slightly less likely to support the death penalty than those who attend less frequently. Although a majority of frequent and infrequent churchgoers support the death penalty, the data show that 65% of those who attend services weekly or nearly weekly favor capital punishment, compared with 69% of those who attend services monthly and 71% of those who seldom or never attend.

Religious Preference

Individuals who self-identify as Protestants are somewhat more likely to endorse capital punishment than are Catholics and far more likely than those with no religious preference. More than 7 in 10 Protestants (71%) support the death penalty, while 66% of Catholics support it. Fifty-seven percent of those with no religious preference favor the death penalty for murder.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 6,498 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 19-21, 2001; May 10-14, 2001; Oct. 11-14, 2001; May 6-9, 2002; Oct. 14-17, 2002; May 5-7, 2003; Oct 6-9, 2003; May 2-4, 2004; and Oct. 11-14, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ± 2 percentage points. (Press Release “Who Supports the Death Penalty?” by Joseph Carroll, Gallup Poll (November 16, 2004)).

Zogby Polls Finds Dramatic Decline in Catholic Support For the Death Penalty

A national poll of Roman Catholic adults conducted by Zogby International found that Catholic support for capital punishment has declined dramatically in recent years. The Zogby Poll was released on March 21, 2005 at a press conference of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as it announced a new Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. The poll revealed that only 48% of Catholics now support the death penalty. Comparable polls by other organizations had registered a 68% support among Catholics in 2001. In addition, the percentage of Catholics who are strongly supportive of capital punishment hs halved, from a high of 40% to 20% in the most recent survey. The poll also found that:

  • Regular churchgoers are less likely to support the death penalty than those who attend infrequently.
  • Younger Catholics are among those least likely to support the death penalty.
  • A third of Catholics who once supported the use of the death penalty now oppose it.

Among the major reasons Catholics gave for their opposition to capital punishment was “respect for life,” and 63% voiced concerns about what the use of the death penalty “does to us as a people and a country.” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, was joined at the press conference by John Zogby, President of Zogby International, Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and Kirk Bloodsworth, who was freed from death row after DNA evidence led to his exoneration. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Press Release, March 21, 2005)

Public Religion Research Poll Finds That Mainline Protestant Clergy are Strongly Opposed to the Death Penalty

A national poll of Mainline Protestant clergy conducted in 2008 by Public Religion Research, LLC, revealed that 66% of mainline clergy oppose the death penalty while only 27% support it. The level of opposition to capital punishment varies significantly based on denomination. Eighty-two percent of ministers from the Universal Church of Christ (UCC) and 81% of Episcopal ministers oppose capital punishment. However, only 53% of American Baptist ministers oppose the death penalty. The survey also found that Mainline Protestant ministers are less likely to speak out on controversial social issues. Twenty-six percent of Mainline Protestant clergy state that they often discuss the issue of capital punishment.

The seven largest Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). (“Clergy Voices: Findings from the 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey,” Public Religion Research, March 6, 2009)